Prisoners’ Release Stirs Protest in Peru

By Tyler Bridges

Published July 22, 2005, issue of July 22, 2005.
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LIMA, Peru — Two Jewish media moguls imprisoned for their role in a 2000 election scandal were released last week under a controversial new law. Their release has caused a wave of protests and prompted anxious discussion within the Jewish community over some members’ high-profile links to the former Fujimori regime.

The two men, brothers Alex and Moises Wolfenson, owned a chain of tabloid newspapers that played a key role in a smear campaign waged by disgraced former president Alberto Fujimori during his 2000 re-election campaign.

Fujimori won the election but fled the country shortly afterward, amid mounting corruption scandals.

The Wolfensons’ newspapers published a series of oversized front-page headlines during the campaign, labeling Fujimori’s opponents as crooks, drug abusers, schizophrenics and homosexuals. In exchange, the brothers received tens of thousands of dollars in payoffs from Fujimori’s shadowy security chief, Vladimiro Montesinos. The payoffs were the basis for their conviction for bribery last year.

The Wolfensons were freed under a new law, only briefly in effect, that counted pretrial house detention as actual jail time. Some critics said a relative of theirs played a key role in lobbying for the law.

Prosecutors want the brothers returned to prison. Thousands of Peruvians rallied Wednesday against what they termed the growing acceptance of corruption by political leaders, symbolized by the Wolfensons’ early release.

Critics fear the brothers’ release could help Montesinos win freedom from prison and encourage Fujimori to return from self-exile in Japan. He has said he wants to run for president again.

Fujimori, the son of Japanese immigrants, was elected president as a reformer in 1990 but quickly came under criticism for his harsh methods in fighting a Marxist guerrilla insurgency. His regime collapsed in 2000, amid allegations of payoffs, drug- and arms-smuggling links, and human rights abuses, and he fled to Japan.

The Wolfensons’ freedom has divided Peru’s small but influential Jewish community, which numbers only 3,000 in a nation of 27 million. On one side are those who want to support a fellow Jew or have ties to the Wolfensons. On the other side are those who believe that the Wolfensons deserve jail time for their role in helping prop up the corrupt Fujimori government.

“There is a lively discussion inside the Jewish community as to what position to take regarding this near collapse of the anti-corruption struggle while taking into account that the Wolfensons and the man who allegedly lobbied for their release are Jewish,” said Gustavo Gorriti, co-director of the daily La República, who is himself Jewish. “I’m sure there won’t be consensus except for confronting any form of antisemitism.”

The owner of La República was one of those slurred by the Wolfensons’ tabloids.

The new law did not affect another pair of Jewish media moguls who received payoffs from Montesinos in exchange for favorable media coverage, brothers Samuel and Mendel Winter, since they already had been freed from prison. Montesinos and the Winter brothers conspired to push aside the co-owner of their television station, Israeli-born Baruch Ivcher, an outspoken Fujimori critic who was forced to flee the country in 1997. Ivcher regained control of the station after Fujimori and Montesinos fell from power.

The measure that benefited the Wolfensons — and could benefit dozens of others — was passed by Congress in June and allowed to become law 15 days later by President Alejandro Toledo.

Congress reversed itself this month after the full effect became known.

Peruvian newspapers have speculated that Toledo did not veto the measure — as some of his advisers recommended — after being lobbied by Alex Wolfenson’s father-in-law, Isaac Galsky, who owns a major fishmeal production business. Toledo’s close ties to the Jewish community — his wife, security chief and best friend are all Jewish — are a topic of frequent speculation and rumor mongering.

Diana Nessim, a spokeswoman for Galsky, said he had not asked Toledo or anyone in his administration to release his son-in-law.

“Just imagine if Mr. Galsky had so much power, why didn’t he do something to keep them from going to jail [in the first place]?” Nessim said, adding, “It’s impossible for anyone to buy the Congress and the executive.”

A lawyer for the Wolfensons did not return a phone call.

The brothers spent 31 months under house arrest before their trial, a common amount of time under Peru’s notoriously inefficient judicial system. In January, they were convicted of letting Montesinos dictate lurid headlines in their tabloids — most notably La Razon and El Chino — meant to destroy Fujimori’s political opponents, in exchange for payoffs.

The Wolfensons were sentenced to five years. They served only five months, thanks to the new law.

Alberto Andrade — who was formerly the popular mayor of Lima, home to nearly one-third of Peruvians — challenged Fujimori in 2000, only to find himself in the Wolfensons’ cross hairs. He faded under sensational but false headlines.

In an interview this week, Andrade remembered that the campaign against him included front-page headlines that were displayed prominently on the sides of newspaper and magazine kiosks throughout the city. Montesinos said that he didn’t even care if anyone bought the newspapers, as long as they glanced at the headlines.

“It destroyed my campaign,” Andrade said. “They were ‘image terrorists.’” He added that the Wolfensons’ release shows that “the people who have a lot of power and money get the justice they want.”

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